Sunday, March 1, 2015

Oscar's Best 2014

In the first blog I ever wrote, I gave my opinions about the movies nominated for best picture in 2013. Since that time I've written reviews on a number of movies, but only a fraction of those I actually saw, and none recently.  I realize now that my ambition to review every movie I saw simply wasn't realistic.  Unfortunately, I had mostly negative reviews of  many of the movies I saw over the spring and summer months.  It was that negativity which in part stifled my desire to review as many movies.  This year I hope to blog a bit more, but only about noteworthy films.

I'm going to start this year, just like I did last, by briefly reviewing the 8 movies nominated for best picture.  However, this year I'm going to review them in order, from worst to best.  I invite any and all comments about my opinions or about the order in which I've ranked them.

8)  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL:  I have already written a full blog about this movie and detailed why I didn't care for it.  I was disappointed to see it won a number of awards, but thankfully none in the main categories.  Simply put I don't get the sensibility of most Wes Anderson movies.  Clearly the Academy and "people" enjoy his movies.  I wish I did, but I just don't.  I always end up feeling like I didn't get the joke.  I found this movie, like so many of his, to be just silly.  It provoked more eye rolls and shrugs then laughs.  I've always said movies are art, and it would be horrible if we all agreed on what good art is.  To me his most recent movies are like Gangsta Rap, I understand that some people enjoy it, but I don't get it.

7)  BOYHOOD:  I greatly appreciate the originality and the ambition involved in making BOYHOOD.  Twelve years is a long time over which to shoot a film.  I do applaud the effort.  I should probably confess that I haven't been a fan of many Richard Linklater directed movies.  My biggest misgiving about BOYHOOD is that it simply wasn't terribly entertaining, and certainly not over the 2 hr 45 min run time.  It was far more interesting and entertaining.  It failed my watch test.  Far too often I found myself checking the time and wondering when it would end.  On the positive side, I did enjoy the performances.  All of the leads (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane) gave solid performances.  I was content to see Arquette win the Oscar, even if I'm not sure her role was merely supporting.  I did enjoy watching the actors age on screen and I particularly enjoyed watching the evolution of technology.  It was fun to see an old Disc-Man give way to an iPhone and to witness the evolution and impact of the internet and even Facebook on the lives of our leads.  I even enjoyed the somewhat choppy way the movie was made.  Linklater didn't feel the need to belabor life altering events.  A short shouting match, a hidden sip of booze, and it's enough to understand that there was an alocholic and abusive relationship.  I'm glad I saw this movie but I'm not sure I'd recommend it to the casual movie fan.

6)  AMERICAN SNIPER:  Again I need to start with an alibi.  I find it difficult to be objective when reviewing military themed movies.  Having spent so much time in uniform, albeit none in combat, it's difficult for me to get fully immersed or to be objective.  Ordinarily I'm totally absorbed by whatever I'm watching.  I'm able to fully lose myself in the story and in the action.  It's only after I've left the theater that I begin to think about what I've seen and to consider my opinions about it.  During military themed films I often find myself thinking too much during the movie.  I get sidetracked and distracted by outside thoughts.  For example, I may question how the uniform is worn or if a haircut would be acceptable.  I also notice people, places, and events that remind me of my own experiences.  If I'm unable to lose myself, I'm less likely to enjoy it as thoroughly.  That being said, I am a huge fan of Clint Eastwood directed movies and I did enjoy this one.  UNFORGIVEN is still one of my all-time favorites.  Bradley Cooper made the role his own.  He was completely believable and seemed to inhabit the mind and body of skilled sniper, Chris Kyle.  I don't think it's fair to criticize the movie for not making more of a political statement.  It wasn't about the legitimacy of the war, nor was it about what the US role in the middle east should be.  It was a strong bio-pic about a soldier and the impact his job and the war had on his life.  It was about PTSD and the struggles so many soldiers face when they return home.  It was also about what military families might face when loved ones go to, and return from, war.  The movie was well made, artfully directed, beautifully shot, and well acted.  I believe the script could have been better, which is why it's only my 6th favorite of the 8 nominated "best".

5)  SELMA:  I'm not that well versed on the details of MLK's life and death, so I can't and won't comment about the historical accuracy of this film.  I did enjoy this movie very much, in particular the hypnotic performance by David Oyelowo as MLK.  I understand why people are complaining that he was overlooked for an Oscar nod.  On the other hand, best actor was probably the strongest category this year.  Oyelowo seemed to inhabit the soul of MLK and channeled him particularly well during speech giving scenes.  He was able to portray MLK's determination and resolute sense of purpose.  It was clear that he understood, even at the time, how important his mission, or calling, was.  The future of social evolution and civil rights in our country, and in the world, depended largely on his actions.  I also enjoyed the performances of Tom Wilkinson who played a conflicted President Johnson, and of Tim Roth who played a bigoted and cock-sure Gov. George Wallace.  I felt the representation of the attitudes and actions of white Americans at the time was well balanced and on the whole fair.  It's still shocking to realize how recently in our past these horribly racist laws, actions, and attitudes existed.  A demonstration of our depravity, early in the film, involving a violent explosion, nearly ripped me from my seat and left me feeling as if I'd been punched in the stomach. Still, it is heartening to see how far we've come since that time, even if we've still got a way to go.  I felt like some of the characters could have been flushed out more while others seemed extraneous and unnecessary.  There were some detours that took us away from the action but overall it was a well made film that deserved the honor of being nominated for best picture.

4)  THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING:  The third of four bio-pics portrays the life of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, based on a book written by his wife.  Even if I wouldn't have voted for him, I wasn't surprised nor disappointed, to see Eddie Redmayne win for Best Actor.  His performance spanned the full range of SH's life, from vibrant but unsure student falling in love, slowly loosing the control of his body, to the wheelchair restricted, pretzel shaped, voice machine using, genius we're all familiar with.  The writing, cinematography and direction were all top notch.  I first fell in love with Felicity Jones, who played Jane Hawking, in a sweet little love story called LIKE CRAZY.  I'm not sure she was the best choice to play his wife, but her performance was subtle but strong, balanced, and honest.  Perhaps because the script was based on Jane's book, I felt the disintegration and ultimate failure of their marriage was almost romanticized and glossed over.  Additionally I would have preferred it if they had delved more deeply in to his scientific accomplishments, rather then focus so much on his personal life.  Other then that I enjoyed this movie very much.

3)  WHIPLASH:  High octane from start to finish, filmed in 19 days.  A riveting story about a young musician with lofty goals and a heavy handed "teacher".  So much was right with this movie.  The writing, the acting, the direction and cinematography were all spot-on.  JK Simmons won for best supporting actor, though I'm not sure he wasn't a lead.  What was particularly impressive was the young Miles Teller matching the veteran actor scene for scene.  Watching the two of them play off each other was mesmerizing and brilliant.  Ever since I saw Miles in THE SPECTACULAR NOW I expected great performances from him, and he hasn't let me down.  Great acting isn't enough to make a great movie.  The script and the exploration of each character's motivation is what makes this movie special.  The young drummer not wanting to be merely great, but striving to among the greatest of all time. His aspiration was to be artistically immortal and he was willing to make any sacrifice to attain that goal.  He'd practice and rehearse until his hands literally bled, he'd forgo love and intimacy if it interfered with his goals.  The teacher expecting nothing short of perfection from his musicians; instructing through fear, brutality, and psychological manipulation.  In the end, both know it's all about the music.  The only criticism I had was relating to the scenes not involving music.  The movie seemed to slow down sharply whenever they were out of the rehearsal room.   Perhaps because the film was so frantic and high speed 90% of the time, it really seemed to lag during remaining 10% of scenes.

2)  THE IMITATION GAME:  Only marginally edging out WHIPLASH, I enjoyed this movie a great deal.  Another bio-pic portraying the life of Alan Turing, a true genius, war hero, and father of Computer Science.  As in WHIPLASH the writing is extraordinary and the acting is off the charts.  I can't say I really recall any exceptional Benedict Cumberbatch performances previously, but he'll be cemented in my memory from here on out.  He captured the essence of a very complex character.  He brilliantly showed us what it must be like to to have a singular mind, to be driven, to be misunderstood, and to be at odds with oneself and with the world.  Keira Knightley, who's never afraid to take risks, shines as the female genius mathematician who motivates, inspires, challenges, and ultimately humanizes the awkward and socially retarded Turing.  I ranked this film higher simply because the scope and range was so much greater.  It was a "bigger" movie.  What I didn't care for was the relatively short shrift given to the fact of Turing's homosexuality.   Ultimately he was ostracized and chemically castrated for his "sin" of homosexuality.  I think that was a big part of who he was, and to me it was incompletely addressed, almost rushed, as an afterthought, very late in the film.

1)  BIRDMAN:  What can I say, I loved this movie and was elated it won so many awards.  I have had friends tell me it was boring, claustrophobic, silly, and even "unwatchable".  I can't possibly disagree more vehemently.  I admit that I'm drawn to actor driven movies and BIRDMAN was definitely that.  There is little I enjoy more in film then strong acting performances.  Of course writing is critical and the value of a good director can't be over-estimated.  BIRDMAN was directed by the supremely artistic Alejandro Gonzalex Inarritu, who also directed 21 GRAMS, another of my all-time favorites.  He's a director who really has a clear vision about what his film should be, and it's always unique.  He's also a collaborative director who seems to love actors.  His initial intent was to film the entire movie in one single take.  While that didn't happen, many of the shots are long and uninterrupted, giving the feel of a single take.  Nearly the entire film takes place in and around a Broadway stage; up and down small corridors and in cramped backstage rooms.  I truly appreciate the artistic vision and groud-breaking risk taking evident in this film.  To say BIRDMAN is unique is a real understatement.  Michael Keaton portrays Riggan, a washed up actor known almost exclusively for being the character Birdman, in a string of comic-book movies.  In an effort to redefine his career and his life, to be "more",  Riggan directs and stars in a Broadway play.  A play he's invested his life savings in.  Riggan is a deeply flawed and supremely complex character.  Keaton's portrayal ranges from subtle glimpses in to the psyche of Riggan to grand, over the top, outbursts.   Because of the extreme range of emotion and arc of character I'd have voted for Keaton to win the best actor award.  I really felt like I got to know, like, and understand Riggan.  The always amazing Ed Norton and Emma Stone round out the cast with equally extraordinary performances.  Naomi Watts was adequate as well, but in my opinion she was the most forgettable of the characters.  I admit there are elements to this movie the viewer just has to accept.  An open mind is a must to enjoy this film.   I'm not a huge fan of movies with open endings.  I understand a writer or director might want us to think, to decide for ourselves what a movie means; in fact, that's what good art should do.  However, I don't typically enjoy having to decide what happened in the end.  I hope that's not too much of a spoiler.

In my next blog I will try to come up with a few "In case you missed it" movies I enjoyed in 2014.  I will also try to comment on a few more movies during the course of the upcoming year.

I welcome any comments about any of the movies discussed.  Feel free to disagree about anything.  Movies are art and there are no right opinions.